How Thanksgiving Became A Holiday On Remote Norfolk Island

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By Mark Johanson | November 21, 2012 8:09 AM EST

Many a Wikipedia user visits the website’s Thanksgiving page around this time of year as a refresher course on the holiday’s historical roots. The page offers little surprise for those who stayed awake during their elementary school history class -- that is, until they glance at the list of countries that observe Thanksgiving and find this at the very bottom: Norfolk Island.

How did the most American of holidays end up on a remote Australian territory in the middle of the South Pacific?

Here’s where you may need a true history refresher: Once a British penal colony, Norfolk Island is populated by the descendants of the H.M.S. Bounty's mutineers and their Tahitian captives, who were made famous in the 1962 Marlon Brando film "Mutiny on the Bounty."

The island today is perhaps best known for its biggest export: the Norfolk Island pine, an ornamental sapling that's vaguely reminiscent of a poorly spaced artificial Christmas tree. But the foliage is only part of Norfolk's unique charm. Elegant convict-built Georgian buildings dot the Kingston and Arthur's Vale Historic Area, many locals converse in Norfuk (an intriguing blend of 1700s English and Tahitian), and if you’re around in November, you can celebrate Thanksgiving.

Lisa Richards of the Norfolk Island Museum said that Tom Lloyd, ex-editor of the local paper, the Norfolk Islander, was the resident expert on all things Thanksgiving.

“On Norfolk Island there is one day when all congregations join together, and that is to celebrate Thanksgiving Day,” he explained. “The Pitcairners always celebrated the English Harvest Home festival, but it was not until the mid-1890s that All Saints Church was specially decorated for the service.”

This was Isaac Robinson's idea, Lloyd said. Robinson was an American trader who settled on Norfolk as agent for Burns Philp & Co Ltd., later becoming Norfolk's Registrar of Lands and the island's first (and so far only) United States consul. 

“The idea of Norfolk having an American consul does sound slightly absurd today,” Lloyd admits, “but in those days American whalers made frequent calls, and Robinson proposed dressing the church up American-style for Thanksgiving.”

Three of Robinson’s friends helped him decorate All Saints Church in the capital, Kingston, using only palm leaves and lemons, and though he died and was buried at sea the next year, his notion caught on. For Norfolk’s second Thanksgiving service, the parishioners brought down all sorts of produce to decorate the church.

“The tradition became to tie corn stalks to the pew ends and pile flowers on the altar and the font,” Lloyd said. “At first, each family took home its own fruit and vegetables after the service, but today they are sold to raise money for church preservation.”

If one Thanksgiving just isn’t enough, there’s still time to book a trip down to Norfolk Island. The remote territory between New Zealand and Australia celebrates its Thanksgiving on the last Wednesday of November, similar to the pre-World War II American observance of the holiday on the last Thursday of the month.

Be prepared to sing some American hymns, particularly those with special meaning for the islanders, like "Let the Lower Light be Burning" and "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." You can also expect to eat the traditional fare of cold pork and chicken, pilhis, banana and, like any good American celebration, pumpkin pie.

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